Has video conferencing finally come of age?

13 Oct 2009
Lifesizepassport_thumb.jpg
Lifesizepassport_thumb.jpg

I spent yesterday morning with a company called LifeSize, whose CEO (Craig Malloy) was keen to suggest that 2010 would be the year when video conferencing became massive. (Strangely enough, LifeSize is a company that sells video conferencing products.)

He certainly gave the most impressive demonstration of video conferencing I’ve yet seen. We were in a small meeting room with room for around eight people, and sitting at one end was a 40in LCD TV.

By dialling a colleague from the on-screen interface – note that no computer was needed – the display was filled with a 720p high-definition video stream of their Tweed-suited sales director. He was based in Brighton, we in a central London office.

Using the array microphone built into the camera at either end of the connection, we were able to speak at normal meeting volume and hear clearly what he had to say.

In other words, he was part of the meeting. Interjecting, arguing, making bad jokes. For people who work remotely this could be what gives them a lifeline back into the main office.

Although I began the meeting quite cynical about the need for a high-definition image, it does seem to make a difference. Certainly, when I compare it to the attempted long-range discussion I recently had with a web designer over a webcam, there’s no comparison (we gave up in frustration after a couple of minutes).

It also compares well to MegaMeeting, a company that recently attempted to demonstrate to me its software-based web conferencing software. This is a dial-in service, and all you need to do is connect to the internet while wearing a headset and with a webcam active.

It didn’t go well. Turns out that my travel headset wasn’t up to the job (despite the fact it works well with Skype), and in the end we had to resort to me watching the demonstrator talk while speaking to him directly on the phone.

There is some potential here – mainly for talking to hundreds of people simultaneously – but it was far from an enjoyable experience. And though I asked for login details to the service to test it properly, so far none have been forthcoming.

LifeSize comes at a greater cost, of course. While Craig Malloy was keen to point out that this works over a standard broadband connection (a claim we hope to put to the test soon), you still need to buy the hardware.

Lifesizepassportinthebox_thumb.jpg

The key product is called LifeSize Passport, which goes on sale next month, and Malloy boldly hopes the Passport will one day replace the voice-conferencing devices to be found in most boardrooms. And it’s possible.

For £1,829 exc VAT, you get all the hardware pictured above: the Passport device itself; a fixed-zoom camera with built-in microphone; and a remote control. The Passport is a simple, compact device designed to be carried around, and includes an HDMI output, Ethernet port, power connector, a USB port, and the connector for the camera to hook into (you can upgrade to a pan, tilt, zoom camera for an extra £730 exc VAT).

The drawback is that you need two; or at least a product of similar quality at the other end.

While LifeSize makes a big play out of Passport’s support for Skype, the fact remains that at launch Skype support only extends to audio calls – so you’ll be able to hear anyone who’s connecting via Skype, and they’ll be able to see you, but there won’t be the full interaction a meeting really needs.

Malloy pointed out that “there’s more and more probability that people will have video conferencing systems. It’s not this quality [the HD stream we were enjoying] but it’s not uncommon for people to have a video communication system.”

Even Malloy is realistic about the fact video conferencing is no substitute for the physical world, noting the fact he was in the room at that very moment. “We’re not saying get rid of your mobile phone and the airplane, but it can supplement them.”

We’re trying to convince LifeSize to lend us two Passport systems so we can perform a month-long test: we’ll put one unit in our central London boardroom, and another down in the PC Pro Enterprise Labs (coincidentally also in Brighton).

In the meantime, I’d like to know what use businesses – and in particular the small-to-medium sized businesses LifeSize is targeting – would put the Passport to. I can see a strong need for branch offices to keep in touch with head office, but would you replace the audio-conferencing kit that’s probably already in place in your boardroom?

And is this really a money-saving, “green” device that will help you do business more efficiently? Or is video conferencing just a niche for big corporates with more money than sense? Answers on a postcard. Or failing that, via the comments below.